Hewlett-Packard Co. Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman is drawing inspiration from Starbucks Corp. CEO Howard Schultz as she steps up a turnaround effort at the world’s biggest computer maker.
Whitman, CEO since September, said in an interview yesterday that getting Hewlett-Packard back on track could take as long as half a decade. She compared her task to the one facing Schultz in 2008 when he resumed his role as CEO of Starbucks, the largest coffee-shop operator, and A.G. Lafley, who ran Procter & Gamble Co. for almost a decade.
Reviving Hewlett-Packard, buffeted by accelerating competition in mobile devices and cloud computing, will be as challenging as rejuvenating some of the world’s most recognized consumer brands, Whitman said. Schultz was on the board of EBay Inc., the online retailer she ran for a decade, and Whitman served as a P&G director while Lafley was CEO.
“Usually these kinds of turnarounds take anywhere between four or five years,” Whitman said at the company’s Discover conference in Las Vegas, which began June 4. “To have HP humming exactly the way I envision it — this is a big undertaking.”
Whitman, racing to reverse the sales and share-price slump that led to the ouster of her predecessor, Leo Apotheker, is eliminating about 27,000 jobs while working to cut debt. She’s also trying to boost cash flow by better managing inventory levels and more quickly collecting payments from customers of a company that generated $127.2 billion last year by selling everything from handheld calculators to supercomputers.
As CEO of P&G starting in 2000, Lafley injected new technology into household brands such as Tide and Crest and acquired Gillette for $57 billion to control more retail shelf space. Schultz shuttered hundreds of cafes after an overexpansion and he’s concentrated on improving the quality of Starbucks’s coffee and food.
“There’s nothing fancy about these turnarounds,” Whitman said. “This is not advanced business, this is 101.”
At the Las Vegas meeting, which drew almost 11,000 attendees, Hewlett-Packard announced a cloud computing service for airlines, as well as new hardware and software for data security and analysis.
Whitman’s challenge may be more comparable to the one Lou Gerstner faced in the 1990s at International Business Machines Corp., the computer maker then struggling amid heightened competition, said Jeff Matthews, founder of hedge fund Ram Partners in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Another prospect, Matthews said, is that Hewlett-Packard ends up resembling the once iconic Eastman Kodak Co., which collapsed into bankruptcy in January.
“It could break either way,” said Matthews, whose firm has in the past sold Hewlett-Packard shares short, meaning it would benefit from a decline in the stock. “It could be Kodak, which was long and drawn out. Or maybe it can be like IBM.”
Ram Partners isn’t currently shorting Hewlett-Packard stock, Matthews said.
Whichever path Whitman follows, the climb will probably be steep. Hewlett-Packard has tumbled 16 percent this year through yesterday, and sales have declined three straight quarters. The company has lost market share in personal computers as more consumers flock to tablet-style devices such as Apple Inc.’s iPad. It was slow to embrace cloud computing, or delivery of software, storage and other technology services over the Internet.
Hewlett-Packard has also been wracked by management upheaval. Mark Hurd, who proceeded Apotheker, resigned in August 2010 after a company investigation said that he violated the company’s standards of business conduct.
“We left the stock in disgust,” said Dan Morris, chief investment officer at Morris Capital Advisors LLC in Malvern, Pennsylvania, who manages $200 million and sold the last of its Hewlett-Packard shares last year. “The management missteps that have occurred there are just unbelievable.”
Whitman said she is trying to bolster profit by concentrating on a smaller number of “bigger bets” in technology, directing spending toward server, storage and networking technology, and mobile devices that are “fun to carry” as well as secure. She plans a foray into the tablet market with a device running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows 8 operating system this fall.
“If we can bridge the consumer with the enterprise and create desirable devices, that’s a big opportunity for HP,” she said. “Ultimately we have to solve the mobility challenge.”
Bondholders are showing concern over the company’s ability to repay debt that totaled $25.8 billion as of April 30. The price of five-year credit-default swaps on Hewlett-Packard debt — bought to protect investors against the risk of default — are near their highest point in five years. It cost holders of the contracts $204,520 to protect each $10 million in debt as of June 5. That compares with a five-year average price of $58,819.
“Those are an early-warning sign,” said Matthews. “They tell you that debt buyers are nervous.”
At least one of Hewlett-Packard’s biggest partners is also concerned about the company’s turnaround prospects. SAP AG co- CEO Bill McDermott, Chief Technology Officer Vishal Sikka and President Sanjay Poonen met with Whitman and members of her team at the computer maker’s Palo Alto, California, headquarters in early April to address the SAP executives’ concerns about Hewlett-Packard’s declining sales of servers and services, according to a person who attended the meeting.
Thousands of companies run SAP on Hewlett-Packard machines. If those customers switch to IBM or Oracle Corp., that would jeopardize sales at SAP, the largest business applications maker, this person said. The 90-minute meeting was also attended by Hewlett-Packard Chief Operating Officer Bill Veghte and the company’s head of enterprise products, Dave Donatelli. Whitman brought a sense of urgency to the proceedings, at one point pressing Donatelli to quickly resolve slow delivery of Hewlett- Packard gear to an SAP customer, this person said.
While Whitman declined to discuss details of the meeting, she said she’s “bullish” that Hewlett-Packard can work more closely with SAP, while cementing ties with other partners, such as Microsoft Corp.
Hewlett-Packard is reckoning with competition on many fronts. These include a larger, nimbler IBM and server buyers like Facebook Inc. and Google Inc., which are assembling their own systems with inexpensive hardware made in China. Amazon.com Inc.’s Web Services have also become a go-to platform for developers building new applications.
Hewlett-Packard has failed to capitalize on major technology waves, including the Internet boom and the onslaught of social media that gave rise to Facebook and Twitter Inc.
“HP’s a little overwhelmed and lost in the wilderness,” said Tod Nielsen, co-president of data-center software maker VMware Inc. “I haven’t had a clear sense of what they’re going to bet on.”
Hewlett-Packard also has a history of acquisitions that have turned out poorly, including Java server-software company Bluestone Software under Carly Fiorina and Palm and Electronic Data Systems by Hurd, said Phil McKinney, who retired as chief technology officer for the company’s PC group in December.
“There hasn’t been any institutionalized process of bringing in acquisitions and nurturing them,” McKinney said.
The company lacks a strong, central M&A team, instead “stuffing” deals into its various product groups, which can stifle growth, he said.
“The biggest challenge at HP is just navigating the organization,” McKinney said. “You kept on seeing the M&A failures.”
Hewlett-Packard has considered acquisitions that could vault it into new markets. It weighed buying EMC Corp. and its majority-owned VMware, the leader in “virtualization” software for servers, people familiar with the matter have said. It has also considered buying Red Hat Inc., the top seller of Linux software to businesses. Both were deemed too large and expensive and the company didn’t make approaches, these people said.
“These are enormous companies,” Whitman said.
She reiterated that Hewlett-Packard would avoid the type of large takeovers her three predecessors undertook.
“I don’t see the need for a big, transformative acquisition,” she said. “In the near term we’re focusing on what we have.”
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